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Rebuilding the Royal Gorge, ten years after the flames settled

$30-million to rebuild park after wildfire declared a total loss
Posted at 7:03 AM, Jun 15, 2023

CAÑON CITY — The road to rebuilding the Royal Gorge Bridge and Park has been long, exhaustive, and expensive. But ten years after the devastating fire, the park has enjoyed a remarkable rebirth, that has once again established it as a crown jewel on the landscape of Fremont County and Southern Colorado.

After the June 13th fire, the park was declared a total loss. Leading to devastating economic loss.

TIMELINE OF THE ROYAL GORGE FIRE

A timeline of the Royal Gorge Fire

As the ash settled, a question remained... Could the park be rebuilt and how quickly? The answers to these questions would determine the economic vitality of the entire region.

When I recently spoke with those who lived through that nightmare a decade ago. They told me they couldn't believe ten years had passed.

The general manager at the time, Brent Hargrave, "You know, I consider today like looking in the rear view mirror, I hardly remember the old park, this is the new park to me." Ten years later, he is still in charge of the park.

But honestly, you can't talk about today without looking back at that period of time when so many of us, most notably park workers and the Cañon City residents, thought it could ever be rebuilt. Especially, given the extensive damage to structures and vegetation.

Scorched earth is not an overstatement. Employees who worked there at the time told me they were in disbelief, in shock at what little remained of the, nearly century-old, iconic Colorado tourist attraction.

The fire broke out on a Thursday. Peggy Gair, who was working in marketing and public relations at the time, told me they had all seen wildfires in and around the park before. But this was different, much different, "The fire jumped the gorge so that's when we all got serious about getting out of here, so we had to get about 1200 people out of here within a very short amount of time". In fact, she said she couldn't believe that essentially within a 24-hour period, the park would be reduced to total ashes.

The fire took five days to contain and in the end, it destroyed more than 3,000 acres of the park including 48 of the 52 structures. Just one building, the theater, is still in operation today. In comparison, the damage to the bridge was minimal, losing just a few dozen planks in the process.

Hargrave said they had to rebuild the entire park from scratch. And they had to do it quickly because the entire region of Cañon City was so economically dependent on it, "they need us," he said.

He said they decided that the priority was to rebuild the bridge and the new visitor center first. So they could, in part, reopen to the public and begin to bring in visitors once again.

Now quick is a relative term when you must redesign and rebuild the entire park.

It took seven months of demolition alone. But during that time the owners, the architects, and the staff were putting their heads together to envision what kind of park would rise out of the ashes.

Peggy Gair said it was the perfect opportunity to re-imagine the bridge and park, "At that time, it was like, okay, everybody get your wish list together and we're going to start rebuilding this park".

She said it was all hands on deck. The contractors heading up the demolition, architecture, and reconstruction, but employees were pitching in as much as they could.

"So, the minute I heard yes from our owner, we are going to rebuild, the employees were euphoric and then it was just a matter of we hit the ground running," Gair told me, "this place is so important to the people of the area, to employees, so I thought we worked pretty fast".

Members of the community also joined the effort, as their livelihood depended on it. So much so that, from the actual destruction of the park to the frantic effort to rebuild.\, became a tourist attraction unto itself.

In the middle of a construction zone, Brent Hargrave recalls, "We were having tours coming up because the city and the community was like, what can we go to get people to come down here for the local businesses? And so we were doing tours, we would have buses coming from to see some of the destruction to the area, buses coming through all day while we're doing construction".

Of course, a common question from tourists throughout the process was, "when are you going to reopen?" Hargrave says.

Amazingly fourteen months after the fire a soft opening, if you will, a newly reconfigured park as construction continued.

It became a more streamlined operation. From 52 buildings to just 10. New gondolas were installed. A zipline and more educational programs were established. It was more reminiscent of a national park now.

Gair told me that, as hard as it was to believe at the time, given the devastation. This transition could occur within such a short period of time, "We had all these outlying attractions, and food areas, and merchandise areas. So we were spread all over this 360-acre park. We're becoming very efficient now, where people are still able to enjoy the gorge. Instead of five restaurants, we have two really great restaurants, so it's worked really well".

In May of 2015, nearly two years after the fire, a grand re-opening for the bridge and park. A $30-million dollar rebuild all paid for with insurance money. Ten years later there are thirty full-time employees, and that number jumps to around 150 during the busy tourist season.

And while the images of that devastating fire are still firmly etched in the minds of those who lived through this. There's no question there is a sense of pride and accomplishment at the sight of what the park has become: more dynamic, better managed, and well, I am told. An iconic landmark that even mother nature could not destroy.

The changes, the upgrades, and the improvements haven't been lost on Gair, who says, "So, this place has a different look, but the gorge never changes, and that was really to our advantage".

As for Brent Hargrave, he says the experience ten years ago also changed their way of thinking about what the bridge and park have meant to so many, for so many years, "We used to take it for granted a little bit, and we really don't anymore, we know how special this place is, to not only our staff and our team, but to Cañon City, as well and the residents".

And while the scars remain, part of the rebuild is the re-birth of the natural landscape. Re-planting trees and grasses that were destroyed thanks in large part to the work of staff members and the surrounding communities.

You can see the re-growth beginning as you drive into the park. But perhaps. in another twenty or thirty years from now the park will return to be a reflection of what it was before the fast-moving wildfire burned so much to the ground.

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